Brian Ashton: Sensible refereeing will allow us all to revel in a vibrant Premiership final
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 26 May 2012
Follow that, then. After the spectacle of the Heineken Cup's all-Irish showpiece last weekend, we can now look forward to the most significant club match of the English season as Harlequins and Leicester go toe-to-toe at Twickenham this afternoon in the fight for the Premiership title.
Not that this quite signals the end of a long campaign. There is also the farcical matter of promotion and relegation to be resolved in the second leg of an apparently meaningless Championship final between two sides chasing a prize they either do not want or cannot have. Is anyone in the game surprised that this is far more likely to be sorted out by the sport's politicians, who continue to defy belief and get away with it, than by its practitioners?
My wish today is that we're blessed with a refereeing display that creates the conditions for an up tempo, fiercely contested game in which the outcome is decided by the decision-making qualities of the players – the kind of display we saw from the Welsh official Nigel Owens in the Leinster-Ulster match seven days ago.
As the rival Irish provinces went in search of the grandest prize in European club rugby, he allowed a genuine contest for the ball in the tackle area: woe betide any player who allowed himself to become even fractionally isolated. In addition, there was no unnecessary messing with those looking to take immediate advantage of turnover situations, in an effort to maintain pace and tempo. With Owens happy to wait until an attack had reached its conclusion before admonishing any miscreant, tap-and-go routines were encouraged – indeed, almost enforced.
He also interpreted the advantage law better than any northern hemisphere official I've seen this season. Teams were given a couple of free bites of the cherry, but after that, it was "game on" once again. There was none of this "let's see what you can do in five or six phases before returning to the original offence" nonsense.
If the reffing is up to scratch today, we should be in for a cracker. Both Quins and Leicester have, over the stretch of the campaign, demonstrated the willingness and application to play a form of rugby that challenges defences: both directors of rugby, Conor O'Shea and Richard Cockerill, have gone out of their way to highlight and celebrate their players' efforts in this regard. Partisan supporters may have little interest in how their clubs achieve victory on the grand occasion but, for the neutral, it is important to see a vibrant, memorable finale to the domestic season. I might add that such a game would give England some ideas ahead of their tricky five-match summer tour of South Africa.
Conor has built his structures on the foundations laid by the previous Quins regime, investing heavily in youth and encouraging his coaching team to create an environment in which players have the freedom to play. It has not been an unbroken tale of success: Conor himself says that the Londoners are still in the very early stages of exploring where they want to take their rugby. But they can be reassured that, whatever chaos breaks out today, the two Nicks – the No 8 Easter, in the club form of his life, and the No 10 Evans, one of the world's top game-shaping outside-halves – will be there to restore order.
Leicester? Besides the remarkable achievement of reaching the last eight Premiership finals, they have unleashed a veritable avalanche of try-scoring over the last third of the campaign. Cockerill and his equally ebullient and intelligent sidekick Matt O'Connor are determined to create a side that can claim to be the best in every department.
One of the great things about final day is the irrelevance of all that has happened previously between the two sides. The important thing is how the rivals react emotionally to the demands of the occasion – how they find a way of delivering a high-level performance in a more testing and draining environment than they are used to encountering. I'm sure both teams will go in with positive intentions, but who will hold their nerve at the extreme moments?
As ever, recognition of opportunity will be crucial: it is often forgotten that scoring chances, which can be few and far between on these occasions, often arise during the "settling in" period early on and one of the hallmarks of a great team is the ability to sense and take such chances irrespective of the time on the clock.
I will be interested to see if Leicester attempt to shape the game as a scrummaging affair, rather than take their starting point from the line-out. They are minus the injured Tom Croft in respect of the latter, but have the meanest front row in the business when it comes to the former. George Chuter, their hooker, has been heard to say that whatever else happens, the fundamental power struggle is won and lost at the sharp end of the set piece. Can a younger, less experienced Quins trio handle the time-honoured Tigerish approach in this area?
Assuming we get a genuine contest at the tackle, which of the two sides will show the technical precision, the discipline and the tactical nous to edge things their way? Will the accuracy of the respective kicking games stifle the attacking threats of both back-three units, or will enough panic set in to promote hasty kicking, thus allowing the deep-lying receivers the run of the Twickenham acres? And which of the No 8s and 9s will have the major say? I suspect Easter is particularly disappointed that his opposite number, Thomas Waldrom, has beaten him to a place on the plane to South Africa. Equally, I imagine that the Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs will do all he can to remind the recently troubled Danny Care that while a more mature attitude to life off the field has great merit, it is decision-making on the field that will determine who wears the England shirt against the Springboks. (Not forgetting, of course, that the incumbent is Lee Dickson of Northampton – a tough competitor in his own right).
Quins have the youthful exuberance, but do they have the deep-seated belief to stick to the principles of their game? Leicester have the experience, but will they resort to a traditional, conservative method on the big occasion?
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